U.S. Ban on China's Cotton and Tomato Imports for Concerns of Forced Labor

On Wednesday, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said it will detain all cotton and tomato products produced in China's Xinjiang autonomous region due to concerns of forced labor.

Cotton fields in China's Xinjiang autonomous region // Agence France-Presse - Getty Images

The CBP's Withhold Release Order (WRO), according to the agency, is based on information that "reasonably indicates" the use of "detainee or prison labor" within China's so-called re-education camps. Specifically, the CBP claims to have found examples of debt bondage, restriction of movement, isolation, intimidation, threats, wage withholding, and abusive living/working conditions. Additionally, the CBP asserts that China is oppressing Xinjiang's Uyghur Muslim population.

As stated by the State Department, it's estimated that between 1 million to 3 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and others are being detained in what Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, refers to as "internment camps" in China's Xinjiang autonomous region. Nearly 1,300 of these facilities are scattered throughout Xinjiang, where accounts of abuse are numerous. Repeatedly, Beijing has denied mistreatment accusations, claiming it's providing "vocational training" to "deradicalize" portions of the population.

"The goal isn’t just to interdict shipments ... that's actually the fallback plan. The goal of the WRO is that they stop and that the shipments never arrive -- the ultimate goal is that China abandons these horrific practices." - Ken Cuccinelli, Acting DHS Deputy Secretary

Xinjiang's largest export is cotton. According to CBP Executive Assistant Commissioner Brenda Smith, 85% of cotton produced in China originates in the region. Additionally, China's cotton exports are approximately a $9 billion industry. Last month, a different WRO was issued by the CBP on Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which accounted for 17% of those cotton exports. In 2020, China's Xinjiang autonomous region provided for 8 of the 13 WROs that the CBP issued, all due to concerns of forced labor.

In addition to the U.S., several other countries have condemned China's treatment of the Uyghurs. However, critics continue to urge the global community into pursuing a "more aggressive regime of sanctions." Earlier this week, CBP officials emphasized the responsibility of importers and consumers, urging them to diligently research their supply chains.

“If you're buying apparel and it's considerably lower than the fair market value everywhere else, there's a reason for that. Take a few minutes, understand where it's coming from -- is it coming from this region?" - Mark A. Morgan, CBP Acting Commissioner